After debut last year, fan-owned San Francisco City begins new US Open Cup quest

Posted by | October 23, 2015
San Francisco City FC qualifies for the 2015 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup from US Club Soccer. Photo: Lyndsay Radnedge | Center Line Soccer

San Francisco City FC qualifies for the 2015 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup from US Club Soccer. Photo: Lyndsay Radnedge | Center Line Soccer

Note: This piece was originally intended to be part of an Open Cup annual from Byline Press, but various complications saw that the project would unfortunately not be finished this year. This was the current state of San Francisco City FC in late April, 2015. San Francisco City FC hosts El Farolito at 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 25 at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco, Calif. For a full preview of the rest of this weekend’s 2016 qualifiers, click HERE

Wedged between San Francisco’s Painted Ladies and the cloud of marijuana smoke that engulfs Golden Gate Park, Kezar Stadium is a relic of the city’s past, when rent was affordable and space to build still existed. Renovated in the early 1990s, the facility resembles nothing of the cacophonous monstrosity where Clint Eastwood famously chased down the serial killer groundskeeper in 1971’s Dirty Harry. Instead of the massive concrete bowl that once housed the NFL’s 49ers, the stadium now features quaint, run-down wooden benches, a pristine public running track, and middle sections that include seats taken directly from the recently demolished Candlestick Park – another massive piece of Bay Area sporting lore.

As amazing as the on-field sightlines of the surrounding Upper Haight neighborhood are, though, the stadium is also a graveyard for failed Fog City soccer franchises. First came the San Francisco Golden Gales that, which lasted just one season in 1967 in the United Soccer Association (a precursor to the NASL). Under the tutelage of the legendary Austrian Ernst Happel, for whom his country’s national stadium is named, the team put together a 5-4-3 record before folding to yield area rights across the Bay Bridge to the Oakland Clippers.

2007 brought the California Victory, funded by Spanish club Deportivo Alavés, a Basque Country side that has spent most of its anonymous history bouncing around the lower divisions in the Iberian Peninsula. A year of poor results and lack of interest saw Alavés drop the Victory’s funding, and though there was a campaign to save it with a supporter-funded model, the efforts proved not to be victorious.

San Francisco City FC is different, the fans say.

Across the street from the stadium in the aptly named Kezar Pub, a small group of about 10 gold and black-clad supporters surround a pair of tables in the dimly-lit bar. The establishment is only shared by employees and a pair of British expats watching rugby in a corner next to a photo of Joe Montana, San Francisco’s greatest-ever athlete, carving up the Cincinnati Bengals defense in Super Bowl XVI. Black-and-white photos of great 49ers of the 50s and 60s adorn the walls, but just like the Manchester City/Aston Villa game on TV, they go unnoticed as the group gathers around two pitchers of Goose Island.

Photo: San Francisco City FC

Photo: San Francisco City FC

Two hours before the biggest game in club history City’s main supporters’ group, the Northsiders, surprisingly rationally discuss the team and its chances against the giant-killing Cal FC, which made a name for itself in 2012 when a group of cast-offs coached by U.S. legend Eric Wynalda advanced all the way to the Fourth Round. The run included victories over USL PRO’s Wilmington Hammerheads and MLS’s Portland Timbers before Cal ultimately fell to eventual runner-up Seattle Sounders FC. But this is not the Cal FC of 2012. The only name player is former NASL journeyman Danny Barrera, and according to the club, Wynalda is too busy with a new baby, new house, and TV commitments to work with Cal this year.

Excited and hopeful, the supporters begin talking about possible chances should the club win and play at the Ventura County Fusion, a USL PDL side from Southern California which will play the winner of this match. The conversation enters a high level of understanding of the impossibly complex American soccer pyramid that features three professional divisions, two of which claim to be better than they are actually designated by the United States Soccer Federation – and no clear division ranking after that. To a fly on the wall, it could seem like this is simply a fan base with a high knowledge level. The reasoning runs deeper than that. These aren’t just fans, they’re owners as well.

On San Francisco City FC’s website, season tickets are not actually available for purchase. One can only purchase a membership in the club – $50 for a single season or $350 for a lifetime membership. Perks include season tickets, voting rights for major club matters and eligibility for board membership.

“Our goal is to expand to 10,000 active members and reach the highest level of U.S. Soccer competition by 2020,” reads the text of each club press release. “Our mission is to provide top quality football and honor the civic and sporting legacy of San Francisco, while acting in meaningful service to the local community, and offering local youth the opportunity to learn and grow as students of the game & citizens in San Francisco’s unique cultural environment.”

With around 300 members as of their April US Open Cup game, City are a bit shy of their lofty goal. But the supporters are the 51 percent in the model, the majority owners no matter what. The remaining 49 percent of the club is owned by a small group of key players including president Jacques Pelham, original SF City Founder Jonathan Wright, Director of Media and Broadcasting Charles Wollin, Vice President of Community Development Steven Kenyon, head coach Andrew Gardner, and his older brother, Jordan, sometimes a left back on the team, always the general manager, and the founder of Ticket Arsenal FC.

While SF City FC was originally founded in 2001 as a member of the San Francisco Football Soccer League (which traces its roots all the way back to 1902), City’s aspirations ran higher as they applied to join the fourth division National Premier Soccer League. They were denied by fellow Bay Area NPSL club San Francisco Stompers, who cited territorial rights. A grievance filed with US Soccer was eventually found in City’s favor, but by that time the club had decided to enter the NorCal Adult Premier League, also considered a fourth division league.

Photo: Lynsday Radnedge | CenterLineSoccer.com

Photo: Lynsday Radnedge | CenterLineSoccer.com

The one problem: SF didn’t have a team of players to draw from to compete in such a competitive league. The answer turned out to be simple: reach out to Ticket Arsenal FC, a club named after Jordan Gardner’s start-up that sells tickets for a wide-variety of events including football, concerts, and theater. With an impressive collection of former NCAA Division I players, Arsenal crushed its NorCal competition in 2014, sporting a 10-1-0 record to qualify for the four-team postseason tournament to determine a spot for the 2015 Open Cup.

“We, as in San Francisco City, have done all this off-the-field, work and it looks like Ticket Arsenal has done all this on-the-field work and is making a huge push for the off-the-field stuff, but doesn’t have a ton of infrastructure outside of [the Gardner brothers],” Andrew Gardner said a few weeks before the Cal FC game. “So they called me up and set up a meeting and said, ‘Look, this is who we are, this is what we’re about, this is what we think we can provide you guys. You guys do your thing, we trust what you’re doing, it’s amazing. This is like a perfect fit where we merge our clubs.’”

The clubs officially merged January. 12, 2015, under the supporter-owned model, just in time for a 7-1 aggregate win over Juventus Soccer Academy of Redwood City in the semifinals of the postseason tournament. As the top No. 1 seeded team, City hosted and defeated Stanislaus United Academica 3-0 in front of 483 fans at Cox Stadium on the campus of San Francisco State University to officially qualify for the Open Cup, the first amateur team from San Francisco to do so since 1997.

As the governing body of the NorCal Premier League, US Club Soccer decided to allocate its only berth in the Open Cup to the winner of the NorCal Tournament on a somewhat arbitrary basis.

“We gave the slot to Nor Cal (APL) because of the strength of the league and the organization of the league,” said Gabe Rood, a representative from US Club Soccer. “Historically the Nor Cal teams have showed well in the Open Cup.”

Due to some confusion, the United States Soccer Federation is taking over the qualification process from US Club Soccer, which, according to Rood, will allow more amateur teams to enter the tournament rather than just confine it to a particular geographic location.

After the victory and successful qualification, City signed a deal to play home matches at Kezar Stadium and announced that they were one of two teams in talks with the NASL for a possible San Francisco expansion. The profile of the club exploded over social media in a similar way that it had for lower division clubs like Detroit City FC, Chattanooga FC, and Nashville FC.

san-francisco-city-logo-bigDespite the success, Andrew Gardner is quick to explain that the club is, and will always be about the supporter-owned model that values community participation. Standing maybe 5-foot-6 with mid-length curly hair, Gardner exudes an air of confidence with his well-fitted suits and sincerity of voice. Defying his slight frame, his determination led him to play Division I football where he served as the kicker for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He’s the type of person who will sell you the pen and make you feel good about buying the pen.

“[SF City] is a natural, supporter-run team, where, say we start playing like shit and [the board] decides to fire me. When I go off board, the team is still there because the team is the city,” he said. “What we’ve been pushing for is to really integrate the soccer community here in San Francisco, to unite it into one group. From the adult, all the way to the youth level, and really bring high-quality, passionate soccer to San Francisco, [in] which we see the potential.”

At Kezar pub, a solid three hours before kick off, de facto capo Casey Proud is the first to arrive. Toting a bass drum so large that Judas Priest would be jealous, Proud rode the bus then a cable car to make it to the pub – no one looked twice, as is life in San Francisco. “My saying in San Francisco is that you’re never the weirdest person in the room,” he says with a laugh. Wearing City’s gold short-sleeved jersey, a custom red-and-gold scarf, and black shorts, Proud either hasn’t dressed for the chill, or knows that he will spend the entire 90 minutes singing, jumping, and drumming.

As the president of American Outlaws San Francisco, Proud is exactly the type of supporter who City hopes to target, one who is interested in the game from the grassroots level all the way to the top of the game. “San Francisco is an international city,” he says. “When it comes to international cities, every one has a club that represents them. Why can’t we have our own club?

Proud continues in between sips of a breakfast beer: “You ask someone from the Bay Area where they’re from, and they’re not going to say San Jose.” For a variety of reasons, including space, the historical aspect, and the larger population, the highest level of American soccer is played 50 miles south of San Francisco, rather than in Northern California’s most iconic city and one of the top tourist destinations in the world. No one has ever vacationed in San Jose, and certainly no film has ever taken place in the economically-imperative city where the Earthquakes play. As far as the international community is concerned, the answer to Dionne Warwick’s question of “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” is simply: no.

Yet, Proud concedes that the Earthquakes are an important part of soccer in this country, especially in the Bay Area. “We have to give our respect to San Jose. There is so much history there, that club has done so much for soccer in the U.S. and Northern California,” he says. In fact, many of the Northsiders choose to support both teams and see no conflict in doing so. One such supporter is Michael Gonos, the supporter board representative of SF City FC.

As Gonos sits down for an on-camera interview, he wears a thick black shirt, an SF City scarf and a San Francisco Giants hat, perfect dressing for the perennial 65-degree windy temperatures that dominate the forecasts of a city without seasons. He asks if he can drink on camera before eloquently answering questions about the Earthquakes, the uniqueness of supporter ownership, and the future of the club.

“I do [support the San Jose Earthquakes]. I’m a member of the (1906) Ultras. I love them. They’re the best supporters in this country, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m a San Franciscan and I love this place,” Gonos says. “I want it to have representation. We’re not chopped liver. We’re the capital of the Bay Area, we deserve a team. It doesn’t have to be in MLS, because that’s what the Earthquakes are for. I’m not going to stop going to Earthquakes games, but this is my city and it deserves a team.”

San Francisco City FC defeated Cal FC 2-1 in their US Open Cup debut in the 2015 Preliminary Round. Photo: San Francisco City FC

San Francisco City FC fell to Cal FC 2-1 in their US Open Cup debut in the 2015 Preliminary Round. Photo: San Francisco City FC

A quality assurance tester for startups in the area, Gonos’ beard and glasses don’t represent San Francisco. They are San Francisco.

“It goes beyond the whole civic pride thing,” he says. “It goes back to why we’re doing it with a supporter ownership model, because our town, when you have a team, it can do a lot of good. The Earthquakes do a lot of good in San Jose, building youth fields, helping all these programs for kids,” he says. “Well, we deserve that for here. Our kids deserve that. The way to do that is to start a team. So I don’t see it as a conflict, I see it as a concert, because the fact is that without the Earthquakes, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion right now.

“[Supporter-owned] works. You look at Germany, where it’s mandatory that clubs are owned by supporters and you couldn’t have a better advertisement for that model than what’s been going on,” Gonos says between sips of his drink. “I’m just excited about it because I want to do something where the team represents the community, it’s a part of the community. It’s not about getting the people behind the team, it’s about getting the team behind the people.

“Dependence on outside investments by single individuals of means, that’s been tried many times before. It hasn’t worked here. There’s no reason to assume that it’s going to if we tried again, so instead we want to do something different,” he adds. “I just think it’s exciting. We can do things with this team beyond what’s going on in the stands, charitable activities, all that kind of stuff. If we bring people together, then we can do this stuff. The team is more of a tool to bring people together and I don’t think it would work any other way.”

In March, City took the first steps in its quest toward social good by signing Classy and Street Soccer USA as its inaugural jersey sponsors. The former serves as the largest fundraising platform for socially “good” organizations in the world, featuring over 1,000 nonprofits and social enterprises such as The World Food Programme and National Geographic. The latter is a company co-founded by City board member and SSUSA Chief Operating Officer Rob Cann that advocates for social change and the abolition of poverty and homelessness through the organization of street soccer tournaments.

It’s game day, however, and the club will take a pause from focusing on social activism to focus on the task at hand: slaying a giant-killer. A quick walk back across the street, narrowly avoiding the day drinking in Golden Gate Park, and the atmosphere changes from the laid-back support in Kezar Pub, to a tense locker room atmosphere. Realizing that media coverage is paramount towards getting City’s message across, the club and head coach Andrew Gardner have allowed a journalist access inside the locker room for the pre-game speech.

As the beat of Proud’s monstrous drum echoes in the stadium nearly 200 yards away, the players gather in the run-down locker room, painted the same bland gray off-white color that commonly adorns prison walls. In the corner, defender Tom Montgomery stares intently at a ball and repeatedly one-touches it off the wall from close range before Andrew Gardner calls the team together. The players are quiet. Gardner need not raise his voice to get the message across. An expletive-ridden speech ensues as the players nervously shuffle back and forth.

san-fran-city-vs-cal-fc“You guys gotta bust your asses from 0 to 90. We’ve been working way too hard for this shit just to let down,” Gardner says. “It’s more than just playing for yourself right now. It’s about the guy next to you and it’s about everyone that’s going to be in the crowd. We’re going to have 2,000 people out here supporting you. Five months ago, we had like three girlfriends.” The players let out an anxious laugh and Gardner continues: “Now we have fucking 2,000 people. (Cal FC) comes in here, they don’t even quote our team name correctly in articles they’re getting interviewed for. These guys have no idea who we are. They don’t give a shit who we are. But all they know is they’re playing for themselves, and they’re playing for the paycheck they’re getting to play in this game.”

After a few more choice words of wisdom, the team claps it up and begins the eerie journey to the field of play that involves walking through a gravel-filled tunnel that turns pitch-black at the center in even the brightest of daylight. Team captain Adam Ringler, the only player who didn’t play college soccer (the rumor is that he simply played intramural soccer at Santa Clara) gathers the team for one last huddle before stepping out in front of the new Open Cup preliminary round record crowd of 1,519.

The players come out of the tunnel, walk across the track onto the natural grass field that is somehow in mint condition despite its availability for public use, and walk onto the field to meet Cal FC, who showed up 30 minutes later than the hosts, didn’t retreat to the locker room for a talk, and who would bus home immediately after the game. As the national anthem ends, the now 50-strong Northsiders unfurl a 40-foot tall, 20-foot wide image of an anonymous city player wearing the red, gold, and black of the club with the phrase “We ♥ You City” adorned above the player. Proud pummels the drum into submission above a railing-fastened banner that reads: “We’re standing with Alexia,” which honors the sister of Peter Bogdis, one of the Northsiders’ founding members, who is currently fighting Leukemia.

The game kicks off and it’s immediately evident that Cal FC’s Danny Barrera is the best player on the field. The 25-year-old is only one year removed from playing in the NASL, and it shows. Floating between the SF City midfield and defensive lines, Barrera continually picks up the ball and is afforded the time to look up and switch the point of attack. As with most evenly matched cup ties, chances are few and far between with the only clear chance from either side being turned around the post by City goalkeeper Austin Harms right before intermission. Arguably the most notable part of the first half was the moment when the Kezar Stadium clock stopped abruptly at 12:00 for two minutes, leading to confusion from the fans as the referee blew for halftime before the stadium’s time read 45:00.

As the teams head back through the haunting tunnel on the way to their respective locker rooms, the record-breaking crowd was treated to a history lesson. Wanting to integrate as much as possible SF brought to center field representatives from five former San Francisco-based clubs, who participated in the Open Cup. In addition to the failed California Victory were the 1997 semifinalist San Francisco Seals, 1976 champions San Francisco Italian Athletic Club, and the last two winners of the tournament before its modern era began: 1993 winners Club Deportivo Mexico – now El Farolito – and 1985 and 1994 winners SF Greek American Athletic Club.

The ceremony ends, and the teams retake the field. Just one second-half minute passes before controversy arises. Taking a perfectly-slotted through ball in stride, Cal FC’s Alberto Anguiano was clean through on a scoring opportunity, when Harms came off his line and appeared to make contact with the ball and then the player. Center referee Michael Samman hesitates before deferring to his linesman, who indicated that a penalty should be called. Chris Cummings stepped up and coolly slotted a shot into the lower right-hand corner of the net just past the left hand of the diving Harms who had guessed correctly.

30 minutes later, City get back into the game when a skillful run up the left side of the field from winger George Plakorus ends with a cross that Cal FC defender Roger Mendoza knocks into his own goal to level the game. But just two minutes before the end of regular time, a point-blank Cal FC cross hits Gabe Padilla in the arm with the City defender near the edge of the box. This time Samman immediately points to the spot and Cal FC’s Johnny Bravo hits an unstoppable penalty upper-90 to give the visitors a 2-1 lead.

Samman blows for full time and the exhausted City players, used to playing with free substitution in the NorCal APL, clap the Northsiders, who haven’t stopped singing for the entire 90 minutes. Gardner confronts Samman about the calls, but what’s done is done, and SF City are out. According to Gardner, he will by chance see Samman the next day while coaching the reserves, and the referee will admit that he wasn’t completely sure on either penalty call.

The dejected players head back to the locker room and Gardner meets the media outside the locker room as the mid-afternoon sun beats down on the collective dejection of the club.

“We move forward. We keep doing what we’re doing,” Gardner says. “I’m so proud of all the guys here who played their hearts out. We at least deserved another 30 minutes there to show what we had. We completely dominated the second half. It’s just tough. It’s a tough pill to swallow.

“It just goes to show you what hard work we put in. Who would have thought where we’d be four, five months ago, or a year ago? This is that next step we needed to take.”

City ended up finishing second in its summer league, falling 6-4 to Davis Legacy in the championship match in late July. One week after the loss, head coach Andrew Gardner and general manager Jordan Gardner resigned from the club to pursue other soccer opportunities in Northern California. The head coaching position has been filled by the club’s Under-23 manager Paddy Coyne, but a general manager has yet to be announced as of yet.

Evan Ream covers Sacramento Republic FC for the Davis Enterprise. He is currently collaborating with Byline Press on a book about the origins of the Republic. It’s due out in the Spring of 2016. You can reach Evan Ream at evanream3@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanReam